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    Investigators search for clues

    The blaze in the 11-story condominium appears to have suddenly spiked to more than 1,000 degrees.

    By JENNIFER FARRELL and AARON SHAROCKMAN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 2, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- They thought it was a routine fire alarm call.

    It wasn't until the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor that firefighters called to the Dolphin Cove condominiums Friday saw the smoke and heard the screams, Assistant Chief Charlie Flowers said Monday.

    photo
    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
    The hallway where fire flew down this fifth-floor hallway, toward the elevator where this picture was taken.
    "Then all of a sudden you had a hallway filled with fire at 1,000 degrees," he said. "That's what they faced up there."

    On Monday, fire officials combed the charred hallways, sifting through soot and searching for clues in an attempt to piece together how a kitchen fire erupted from a two-bedroom condominium into the hallway, killing two residents and sending five firefighters to the hospital, three with burns.

    Officials believe the blaze in the 11-story high-rise at 255 Dolphin Point on Island Estates shot through the corridor almost instantaneously, searching for anything to keep burning.

    Gases in the air ignited, leaving the air dank and acrid on Monday.

    The fire caused at least $1-million in damage, fire officials said.

    Flowers said the 150 displaced residents will likely be allowed to go home starting Wednesday.

    He said a preliminary investigation shows the likelihood of a "flashover," which, he said, is a fast-moving fire that spikes from 400 to 500 degrees to as much as 1,500 degrees in about a second.

    Chief Rowland Herald said investigators are conducting extensive interviews within the department to establish a time line on the progression of the fire.

    Meanwhile, the department has conducted counseling sessions on three successive days, Herald said.

    "We almost lost two brothers and a sister," said Herald. "This could have been a whole lot worse."

    As the investigation moves forward, several questions remain.

    First, it is unclear how long the fire burned before firefighters were called. Second, the department has conflicting accounts about whether part of the building's internal hose system was turned off, frustrating residents or firefighters, or both, in early attempts to douse the fire.

    Investigators are certain one hydrant outside the building malfunctioned.

    That hydrant, which was closest to the burning condo unit, was a secondary source of water, Flowers said.

    Its failure, Flowers said, did not severely hamper efforts to extinguish the blaze.

    On Monday, Public Utilities technicians dug up the faulty hydrant and found a drain lever snapped and jammed inside the hydrant seat.

    The bronze fittings 3 1/2 feet below ground had corroded.

    The hydrant, manufactured in 1978, has been replaced by a new model.

    Public Utilities technician Greg Hewett, 41, said the break most likely occurred when firefighters went to open the hydrant shortly after an alarm company reported an emergency at 5:21 a.m.

    As the firefighters tried to open the valve, the drain lever snapped and jammed inside the hydrant seat. No water came out.

    "The piece that engaged the hydrant snapped," Public Utilities director Andy Neff said.

    A spokesman for the company that made the hydrant, American Cast Iron Pipe Co., said it is possible but unlikely that a broken drain lever would prevent a hydrant from working.

    Rowland Larkin, a representative for the company, said hydrants from the early 1900s are still in service throughout the country.

    Hewett, a city technician for more than 15 years, said internal corrosion of a spring and other parts made opening the hydrant valve difficult. That might have caused the drain lever to snap, he said. The fitting that the lever attached to was also bent, technicians discovered Monday.

    Fire hydrants are inspected on a annual basis by the Clearwater Fire Department.

    The hydrant near Dolphin Cove passed its last test in February. Neff said the city replaces hydrants based on those test results.

    -- Staff writer Adrienne P. Samuels contributed to this report. Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com.

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